research

Evaluation

The question that I’ve asked myself at the beginning of this year, after my first term on this course was How can facial expressions help communicate character’s emotions and inner monologue and therefore make the audience empathise with him/her? Even that I had some basic understanding of the subject it was a challenging task. First, what is empathy and why is it important in film or animation? Well empathy is simply our capability to understand feelings of another person, ability to put ourselves in their shoes. It doesn’t always mean that we like the particular person, but we somehow care. As an animator ability to make a wider audience care is important to me. Without making them care people would not be interested in watching my work.  In his book “Acting for Animators”, Ed Hooks says that “We humans empathise only with emotion. Your job as a character animator is to create in the audience a sense of empathy with your character” (2011). So if we’re only empathising with emotions, what really are they? It’s really difficult to come up with a definition of emotions, I would say they’re a response or a reaction to what is happening around us. Later in his book Hooks says that “it is impossible to express emotions without thinking” and that’s hard to disagree with. How do I, as an animator show that the character is thinking? Probably the easiest and the most popular way of showing a thought process in a character’s mind is blinking. Blinking makes a character stop for a second, it’s like a mental punctuation point. So that’s what I did in my short animation, whenever the character was changing a thought or was making a decision I made him blink. Blinks are also a great way of adding life to the character. There are different types of blinks in animation, they can be fast, slow, there can be half blinks, there’s even something called “the Pixar blink”(when the one eye blinks few frames earlier  than another one). I tried using different lengths of blinks in my animation to add some variety into it. In my research and observation of short and full featured animations and film I’ve noticed that characters blink differently when they’re happy and differently when they’re sad.

Quickly into my research I’ve realised that reading expressions and emotions from still images isn’t really the best way of researching empathy in animation. Facial expressions are motions and motions can’t be caught in a still image. I’ve also then realised that the narrative will be a major part of my research, as it would be rather to achieve empathy in a character without a story and motivation behind characters actions.

While working on my project I came across few obstacles. Early on I made a bad character design decisions, I was being cautious with the style that I was trying to portray, balancing between realism and cartoony style didn’t give me satisfying results, even that I only realised that at the final stage, when I couldn’t do any changes. Design and style can also play an important role when we’re trying to achieve empathy and in a narrative. Establishing a world that the character is can also help with making the audience care and empathic toward our character. We need to inform the audience of what kind of the environment the characters are in, so the audience what be distracted and confused and would rather focus on character’s actions. Another problem that I came across happened while I was doing blend shapes. Exaggeration is important in animation, it is considered to be one of the principles of the art form, that’s why I was trying to get as many exaggerated and over the top expressions as I could, but it was pointed out to me that some of them aren’t appealing at all and don’t work. Again it was the design fault, as I’m confident that it would work with a cartoony looking character. Some of the limitation came also from mistakes that I did the modelling phases. To get the shape of the head that I wanted I’ve used too many edge loops, which later make my work harder as I’ve spent too much time doing blend shapes, with the results that weren’t always satisfying. However, in a way, these not so perfect moth shapes emphasised the role of eyes, eye brows and eye movement in my character.

Early on I was looking at Paul Ekman’s research about facial expressions and his six, or seven universal emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise and contempt). Few of them are hard to recognised in a still photograph, without any context. As I’ve mentioned earlier, expressions are motions, so presenting them in a still image wasn’t useful for my research. However these basic, or universal emotions were a good start and from them I could move on to other expressions that I could want to achieve. Pixar in their latest film “Inside Out”(2015) decided to portray 5 of them and anthropomorphise them as characters in this movie. What is interesting is that they’ve achieved different emotions by overlapping some of the main one.

Pacing and timing is an important part of animation, especially while doing a series of transitions of the emotions, like I tried to in my short animation. The result could have been better, some frames should been hold for longer, some transitions should have been smoother, it would really improve the final product.

Hooks E., 2011. Acting for Animators. 3 Edition. Routledge.

VanDerWerff  T., Chart: How Inside Out’s 5 emotions work together to make more feelings, 2015, [online] VOX Media, Available at: http://www.vox.com/2015/6/29/8860247/inside-out-emotions-graphic? [Accessed date: 30 June 2015]

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Recently I’ve watched a Ted talk presented by Pixar’s filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed “Finding Nemo”(2003), “WALL-E”(2008) and wrote scripts for Toy Story movies and Monsters, Inc. In his talk he spoke about storytelling, how he approaches it when he’s writing a script and why do we love stories.

Stanton says that we all love stories because “Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.”(2012). I think that’s something that gets overlooked sometimes when we discuss stories. It seems to me that the main reason people like stories, whether is it a novel book, or a movie, or a story on a radio, we seem to think that it all comes down to the entertainment, how we, humans want to be entertained. But his point is different, or at least he gives it a fresh perspective, as he sees it from a different angle.

As a storyteller/writer you should “know your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal”. This is important – it shows that stories should be well planned ahead and the ending should be figured out from the start so the middle part is the journey to that goal. Coming up with endings is hard, I realised that while planning and writing the story for my final project and I’m still not satisfied with it.

Another point he makes is to ““Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care”.(2012) This is something that every scriptwriter should have in a back of his head, that the only way to catch audience’s attention, to entertain them is by making them care. Later on he goes on about how we should make the audience put things together, make them work for it. So instead of giving them everything on a plate, let’s make it fun for them to solve it for themselves. As he says “We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in.“(2012).

A character should have a spine, a goal, something they’re striving for. He gives examples of Pixar characters, such as WALL-E, or Marlin from “Finding Nemo”, but what’s really interesting is what he says at the end, that these goals can sometimes lead to some bad decision making, that characters get in trouble because of them, there are new obstacles in front of them. And that’s what makes stories much more interesting and entertaining.

He also talks about how he was struggling in the early days of Pixar, while writing “Toy Story”. At the time there was a certain formula for animation movies. For example there was a lot of singing involved and there was some romance. The story wasn’t working out and Disney was panicking, so they wanted all these things in the movie. But Stanton and the rest refused, and as he says: “And thank goodness we were just too young, rebellious and contrarian at the time. That just gave us more determination to prove that you could build a better story. And a year after that, we did conquer it.”(2012). It shows that there are no hard rules in storytelling, there are only guidelines. However liking the main character is something he says is a “fundamental”.  I think it would be hard for the audience to relate to an unlikable character, especially in the animated movie. Although there are examples of successful stories with unlikable characters in main roles, I’m thinking about House from “House MD”, or Kevin Spacey’s character from “House of Cards”, but I’m not totally convinced they’re unlikable. They might be evil(in House of Cards case), or rude and cynical like House but there’s something about their characters that people like.

According to Stanton one of the most important ingredients that a story should have is a sense of wonder. “Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent. It can’t be artificially evoked. For me, there’s no greater ability than the gift of another human being giving you that feeling — to hold them still just for a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder”(2012).

He ended his talk with saying that drawing from our own experiences, our own stories is also something a storyteller should do. “Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.”(2012)

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story, 2012. [online] TED talk. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_stanton_the_clues_to_a_great_story/

Eye brows

Last week I covered large eyes, but what about another facial feature that is also expressive and can be used in improving facial expressions and character performance? There is something about the eyes and eyebrows that draw our attention to them.  .  In “The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expressions”, Gary Faigin says : “ We instinctively feel that the eyes provide our most direct link to the person within. The brows too seem to have a life of their own”. As opposed to the eyes, eye brows are capable of bigger shape change and they also can change the shape of the eye. Later, in the same book, Faigin says: “Considering how much can be expressed by the eyes and brow, it is surprising that there are only five muscles responsible or it all (…) Our control over these muscles is so fine-tuned that we can express virtually the whole range of emotions with just a little twist here, a little lift there: our perception is so practiced that we can instantly recognize the differences.”

Eyebrows can be useful in exaggerating the performance, like in this example, from Ace Ventura(starts around 0:20):

But they can also be used in more serious performance, not as exaggerated, but still noticeable:

But let’s focus on animation, in this short clip from Pixar’s “Ratatouille” we can see that a lot of emotions is communicated through the eyebrows. Clearly the exaggeration works, we can especially see it in chef Skinner performance. Even that his brows are almost hidden under his huge hat, we can see how much more alive his performance is because if the brows:

While doing my research about eyebrows I came across a good advice provided by Pixar’s animator, Victor Navone, which says that to make the brows stand out and make sure that the audience won’t miss the movement, it is a good idea to have the brow animation preceding any head or body movement. It also can be used to show that character is thinking.  He also mentioned other tips such us:

  • As the pitch of the voice raises the brows go up
  • As the pitch of the voice lowers, the brows likewise drop
  • When asking a question where the answer is already known, the brows raise
  • When asking a question where the answer is truly unknown, the brows lower
  • Spontaneous facial expressions (surprise, fear, pain, etc.) tend to be symmetrical, where as expressions we choose to make (curiosity, suspicion, contempt, etc.) can be more asymmetrical.

 

http://www.carlosbaena.com/resource/resource_tips_brows.html

http://blog.navone.org/2009/02/brows-have-it.html

Faigin G., 1990 The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expressions

Large eyes

Is there something more recognisable in animation characters than their big eyes? Doesn’t matter if it’s anime, or western animation, large eyes are a troop that is very popular in the industry. It can be understandable when it comes to Japanese animation, as according to research Japanese people read faces differently to Westerners. As they live in a culture that values humbleness, modesty, a culture that is rather closed and supressed emotions, rather than expresses them, it’s easier for them to read what another person is feeling by looking at their eyes. Same research claims that Westerners, Americans in particular(as they’re were the subject of the study) look at the mouth first. This tendency could be seen in something as trivial as internet emoticons. While in the West we focus more on mouth, where J represents a smile and L illustrates sadness, emoticons used in Japan concentrate on eyes (^_^  – smile,  ;_;,  or (‘_’) – sadness).

But why would this style be popular in Western animation? As I’ve mentioned above we’re supposed to look at the mouth first. One of the reasons might be simple. We associate large eyes with things that are cute. It’s an easy way to make our character more appealing and likable. It has been started in early Disney films and it is still popular to this day. It was so popular that it influenced Japanese manga artists who used it in their work. Large eyes, small noses and chins appeal to viewers as they make them look cute, like babies, which creates the illusion of innocence and vulnerability. This style is in particular popular in Disney and the way of designing their female characters. It’s pretty well illustrated here, where we can see how different female characters would have looked with normal eyes. It’s an interesting attempt, but I think it could have been executed better, eyebrows also play an important role in how we perceive the character and they make them look weirder now.  What I’ve noticed in Mulan’s example is the fact that her large eyes are making her stand out from the crowd, straight away we can tell she’s the main character. We can also see large eyes in toys such as Bratz dolls. These dolls are overly sexualised and promote a specific image of a women, which could be harmful, especially to young girls. A Tasmanian artist, called Sonia Singh, decided to challenge this by giving these dolls a makeover. another artist, Nicolas Lamm, created a doll which is very similar to Barbie doll, but her body looks more like an average girls body, rather than super skinny Barbie dolls. What’s interesting Time magazine interviewed few children about it and the feedback was mostly positive. What’s interesting is the fact that student seemed to relate to this doll more that to the unrealistically looking Barbie.

There’s a well-known quote, which says that “Eyes are the window to a soul” – the origins of this quote are unknown, some say it was Da Vinci, others say it was Shakespeare. I feel that our emotions are always coming through the eyes, we can tell if someone is happy, or sad by looking at the eyes. They also tell what kind of person we are. If someone is shy he won’t maintain the eye contact, they will look around the room, or at the floor. When a person is confident it’s the opposite. Eye movement can also tell us what the person is thinking for example when we’re looking up this usually means that a person is remembering something that happened in the past. All of those can be used to tell a believable story through the character, make his/her expressions more interesting and also natural. I feel like the viewer might not notice it, as it’s something that we rather do automatically, not thinking about it, but character animators should be aware if this techniques. As I’m going to use a lot of close ups in my animation these eye movements will help me get my point across better.

Khazan O., 2013, The Psychology of Giant Princess Eyes [online] The Atlantic, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/the-psychology-of-giant-princess-eyes/281209/ [Accessed date 18.05.2015]

2015, ‘Sexy’ Bratz dolls given a make-under [online] Daily Telegraph, available at:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11359647/Sexy-Bratz-dolls-given-a-make-under.html [Accessed date: 18.05.2015]

http://treechangedolls.tumblr.com/

Stampler L., 2015, See How One Artist Dramatically Changes Bratz Dolls to Look Like Real Girls [online] Time Magazine, available at: http://time.com/3676653/bratz-dolls-makeover-real-girls/ [date accessed: 27.05.2015]

Wenner M., 2007, Americans and Japanese Read Faces Differently [online] Livescience.com, available at:
http://www.livescience.com/1498-americans-japanese-read-faces-differently.html [date accessed: 18.05.2015]

 

 

 

Pose vs Movement

A while back, during our tutorials we were talking about pose vs movement. Our goal as animators is to create action, because animation is all about the movement and body language. Often what we see can give us more powerful impression than what we hear. In his book, “Acting for Animators”, Ed Hooks says that “Movement is almost always a result of thinking and emotion”, so as an animator I have to focus on what is this character’s background, why is he doing it? Hooks quotes Walt Stanchfield who said “draw the verb, not the noun”. Hooks explains that it means that the drawing/pose should be able to tell the story. He gives an example of a women looking at a bird in the tree, he says that she should be actively looking at it, not just tilting her head. I was confused what does that actually mean, but as he says earlier, the movement is always about thinking and emotions so my job is to give them to the character. For example one way of doing that would be blinking. My plan was to achieve that and capture the inner emotions of the character while she’s watching the birds.

Here’s the unfinished, blocked animation:

 

References:

Hooks E., 2011. Acting for Animators. 3 Edition. Routledge.